For many players who have jumped into Overwatch, it’s their very first encounter with the hero shooter or team FPS genre. As long as I can remember, there’s been a deep rift between online gaming communities, dividing traditional MMO players and shooter fans, distinguishing the ones playing with their guilds in WoW or Final Fantasy XIV from those who are organized as clans in Counter Strike or Team Fortress 2. It is not just the adopted terminology that differs; both sides of the divide have a certain (anti)social reputation in the eyes of their counterparts. Many times have I encountered FPS players making disparaging remarks about traditional MMORPGs and MOBAs requiring no skill or being for casuals, no matter how competitive their raiding or PvP scenes might be. On the other hand, a large body of MMORPG players avoid all eSports like the plague, including MOBAs such as League of Legends or Dota 2.
The reasons why so many MMO players opt out of very PvP-centric and competitive online games are manifold. Quite often they fall into one of the following categories:
- Feeling stressed out by learning curves and performance pressure
- Naming and shaming on match rankings and leaderboards
- Toxic communities in chats and forums
- No classes/roles that fit the preferred play-style
While almost all of these reasons can be influenced via game design to some extent, too many MMO players also readily blanket condemn themselves for being unfit for competitive environments: “I’m not good enough” and every variation thereof is a widespread credo even among seasoned raiding veterans and it’s one that is perpetuated as long as the traditional rift between these genres exists. This is why Overwatch will be an interesting title to follow in the weeks and months to come; how long will its current appeal to Blizzard’s wider player base last? Will the launch enthusiasm fade before long and leave nothing but a more hardcore community, busily climbing the tiers of the yet to be released ranked mode?
Personally, as a gamer with some amateur history playing in shooter clans (primarily in Red Orchestra 2 and Star Conflict), I feel like my MMO buddies are selling themselves short.
The reality of most competitive games is simply a very steep learning curve with next to no entry levels. Combined with the show-boating and leetspeak that occurs in some public channels, this makes for a lousy experience for anyone used to easing into games at their own speed and being self-conscious about their skill. It is intimidating to join your first, fast-paced matches and be immediately exposed on a ranking board or get yelled at because you don’t know what you’re doing. The fact that nobody truly knows what they’re doing when starting a new game frequently gets lost in this context. The cool kids mocking you were generally just better at faking it until they made it.
Gaming is precious leisure time however and not all of us feel like sucking it up. This is where many players quit without a chance to ever hone their skills and enjoy the lighter aspects of eSports. That is a shame because competitive team play makes for some of the most powerful and fun cooperative moments and requires all the different skills most MMO players are already equipped with in abundance. If you’ve ever run heroic/mythic/advanced dungeon content in WoW or elsewhere, if you have spent days and weeks perfecting raiding strategies, performing in groups and coordinating your performance with others, then you are completely qualified and ready to “pwn” in more competitive genres too!
This is where game design comes in and where developers can make all the difference in turning a new title into an inclusive experience for more players. Game mechanics, social engineering and the way competitive games are marketed all play a massive part in how widely received they will be. So let’s look at all the ways how to make competitive gaming less intimidating!
Tutorials, Tutorials, Tutorials
Blizzard are doing it right with Overwatch and so do Robot Entertainment with Orcs Must Die! Unchained: basic control tutorials, shooting ranges, and practice runs against AI are a boon to newcomers looking to learn controls and game mechanics in peace. Making information readily available while keeping basics simple is the forte of both of these new titles. Tutorials aren’t just effective at preparing someone, they also boost player confidence which is a vital part of turning someone’s beginner experience into a success. Likewise an eSports veteran might engage in tutorial play to thoroughly test every class first and analyze weaknesses, before unleashing his or her epic skill on the rest of us.
Removing Undue Stress Factors
Many of the stress factors known from team-based PvP games don’t actually need to exist. Overwatch is presently displaying the most inclusive and rewarding player match data and ranking for its quick play mode that I have personally ever encountered. Instead of the usual kill and death list at the end of each match, up to four players from both teams get chosen for different accomplishments relevant to current game mode instead. A single player gets selected every time as “Play of the Game” for outstanding performance in a critical moment. This honor includes healers, just the way the overall ranking does. Furthermore, players from both teams can anonymously up-vote individual players selected by the automatic ranking.
The system also rewards smart and strategic play, such as spending time on objectives or assisting kills, rather than kills and captures only. This way of handling team and individual performances makes shaming the “worst players” a thing of the past.
Motivating Player Progression
Player or character progression is a well-known feature of MMORPGs but in recent years eSports too have more and more adopted tiered progression systems with special unlocks, achievements and cosmetics to keep their players collecting and returning. While I appreciate non-tiered and non-progressive PvP games for keeping balance straight, queues short and the game accessible to newcomers, cosmetic rewards are a fun addition to team shooters and similar genres that otherwise feature very non-customizable, repetitive and transient gameplay experiences. It is important that such rewards are available to players of every skill-level which favors point-based, gradual earnings over exclusive, achievement-based ones. By all means, award your best players with some special looks but leave plenty to motivate the rest that are also the majority of your player base!
Managing the Community
The FPS genre is probably the most notorious when it comes to trash talk and unwelcoming communities, especially towards certain subsets of gamers including women. A first step in ordering the chaos is to keep chat channels functional and small, with means of individual moderation. VOIP should always be an optional feature after text-based chat.
Other than facilitating a positive social environment by rewarding different playstyles and removing undue stress factors, matchmaking is another big factor influencing how people behave in-game. No one likes to sit in the same losing, out-classed team forever which is why effective matchmaking systems evaluate player statistics and meta-data to re-assemble pick-up groups frequently for a more even playing field. Less losing horribly equals less raging obnoxiously.
Offering Choice and Variety
Overwatch currently features a roster of 21 very unique, highly specialized classes many of which cater to more defense and support oriented players. Appealing to different playstyles while rewarding all of them equally is a sure way to include more newcomers in team shooters like this one. The different heroes still follow a basic control pattern which means they’re different enough to keep things interesting and encourage experimentation, while being similarly easy to get into. Furthermore, not everyone interested in competitive play is automatically on a quest for ultimate glory; it’s nice to have the option to jump into some quick pick-up action sometime, without the need for pre-made groups and ranked play.
The Second “P” is for Personal
Despite all the things that developers and game designers can do in order to appeal to as many players as possible, there will always be a more pacifist demography for whom PvP-centric gaming just isn’t an option. PvP is personal the way PvE never is; you can die fifty times fighting a giant AI boss without witnesses and without a lasting, personal grudge between the two of you. I think it’s fair to say that PvP games challenge our ego the way PvE games never do and they hold the potential for ultimate joy or frustration with yourself and those unpredictable others. Above all, one’s personal time set aside for gaming should be enjoyable and fun, not stressful or discouraging. So it might be that competitive gaming simply ain’t for you.
For everyone else, here’s my message: the reports of your lack of skill are greatly exaggerated! The newly released Overwatch or Orcs Must Die! Unchained offer the perfect training grounds for the anxious, yet curious among you. At the end of the rookie tunnel, there’s some light-hearted and hilarious team-based action waiting, without many of the stress factors eSports are commonly associated with. It’s time to take heart and start taking names – just try it sometime!Related: Competitive Gaming, eSports, Orcs Must Die! Unchained, Overwatch